Sunday, December 30, 2012
A conversation with Prof. Ghirmai Negash
Professor Ghirmai Negash
Issayas: Even though Eritrea is one of the few African countries that has its own script, it was not until modern times that the majority of the population (through public and private education, for example) was exposed to reading and writing. Before that reading and writing was confined to the priesthood. Am I correct in that? If so, were there any works written by the priesthood that you looked into when you did your research to write your first book: "A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea"?
Ghirmai: Yes, there were religious books and shorter treatises that were written by the priesthood, before the arrival of the modern printing press in Eritrea. A significant body of religious literature was written in Geez, the classical and liturgical language of the Orthodox Churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia.Geez language and literature has been often comparably described as the equivalent of Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe, and its history and influence on the other languages of our region has truly been massive. We also find some rudimentary writings in Tigrinya, dating to the 17th-18th centuries. For example, there were attempts by European missionaries to print partial translations of the Bible in Tigrinya in the 1820s. The missionaries wrote the language in Latin script. The most significant work in Tigrinya from that period was Dabtara Matewos’s “translation of the Four Gospels.” This book also marks the first appearance of the Tigrinya language in book form, written in Geez alphabet. Dabtara Matewos was assisted by Rev. C. Isenberg in this book project, which was published in Switzerland in 1866. Later, after printing presses
were introduced in Eritrea, by the Catholic Mission in Massawa (1863) and by the Swedish Evangelical Mission in Monkullu (1885), more Tigrinya books were produced locally. After having been moved to Keren in 1879, the printing press of the Catholic Mission was moved to Asmara in 1912. It was the first printing press in East Africa. Today, this press still functions in Asmara under the name “Francescana Printing Press.” The printing press owned by the Swedish Evangelical Mission was moved to Asmara in 1895. In 1896, the press published Dr. K. Winqwist’s “printed version” of the Tigrinya alphabet, which was a major event in the history of the language, as it opened the way for continued publications. It was also this same press that started publishing the first Tigrinya newspaper, MelEkhti Selam (the Message of Peace), the first
printed Tigrinya newspaper, in 1909.
The second edition of "A History of Tigrinya Literature" published in 2010.
Issayas: I know a lot of Eritreans who like to read history but not fiction. How would you answer them?
Ghirmai: Outside my children and my students, I don’t think it’s my business to dictate what to read. Even that is not always realistic. I mean to say, it’s good enough as long as people read. Also, there aren’t many Eritreans in the environment I live and, therefore, don’t know whether Eritrean readers prefer history to fiction. I would say though the following in order to answer your question. If, as you say, the Eritreans around you don’t like reading fiction, it is perhaps because they don’t find novels that resonate with their interests. In that case, I would give this counsel by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Issayas: For people who have not read your first book mentioned above, would you give us a thumbnail sketch of the book?
Ghirmai: My first book, A History of Tigrinya Literature in Eritrea, is a critical exploration of the history of Tigrinya literature in Eritrea through the prism of post-colonial theory and also interrogates global theories through indigenous conceptions of literary and aesthetic categories. Regarding its scope and impact on African literary history, this work has been described by one scholar as a “pioneering and thus far only book of its kind on the subject, [and] is a model of what can and should be done for the literature of any African language in any African nation or region” (Charles Cantalupo, 2012), and another scholar, Ali Jemale Ahmed, has called “A History of Tigrinya Literature [is] a must-read for anyone.” Ngugi wa Thiong’o has also said some kind words about the book, which you can read on the blurb of the Africa World Press edition. These are people with established reputations in African literature, and it matters a great deal to me to get such appreciation from them. It is very inspiring.
Dr. Ghirmai's translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel
Issayas: Now a question about your most recent book. The Conscript: A Novel of Libya's Anti-colonial War is a translation of Dr. Abba Gebreyesus Hailu's novel. Why did you choose this particular book to translate? Who was Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu? What is the significance of the book in the history of Eritrean literature?
Ghirmai: Dr. Gebreyesus Hailu was a Catholic priest. He had a doctorate degree in theology. He was born in 1906 in Afelba, Eritrea, and died in 1993, in Ethiopia. He was a prominent religious and public figure in Eritrea and Ethiopia. He wrote his novel, The Conscript, in 1927, but he was able to publish it only after the demise of Italian colonialism in Eritrea. This makes sense because of the book’s scathing criticism of Italian colonialism. Through its central protagonist, Tuquabo, the novel offers a vivid picture of the predicament of the Eritrean conscripts that went to fight in Libya against the Libyan freedom fighters, while they themselves were under the bondage of colonial Italy. It is a sad story—with the humiliation, defeat, and all that. But Gebreyesus Hailu didn’t write the novel for sentimental reasons. It was because he wanted to give Eritrean readers a critical mirror of what was happening then. Hailu knew very well the European and African universes. He was writing as an “insider-outsider” of both worlds. This stance enabled him to look at the excesses of colonialism without losing sight of "Habesha" complicity in the war. Of course, he sided with his people and hated colonialism, but he also did not shy away from portraying what he saw as the misplaced “heroism” of the Habesha conscripts. Additionally, the novel is remarkably well written. For me, it is the best writing I have ever read so far in the Tigrinya language. And these are some of the main reasons
why I determined to translate the novel.
To purchase Dr. Ghirmai's books.
Issayas: Thank you for your time. Happy Holidays!!
Ghirmai: Thank you for the opportunity.